When we evaluate players for an upcoming season, there are a ton of metrics we use to rank the skill positions. There are team changes, coaching changes, rookie draft picks, and injury history, not to mention past season performance data, just to name a few.
While all of these are important when breaking down a player’s opportunity, there is another measurable that affects the execution of the offense in its entirety: The offensive line.
The O-Line is the backbone of the offense. Not only does it protect the quarterback and create holes for the running backs, a healthy and cohesive offensive line allows a play to develop for successful drives to the end zone. We bring up terms such as “better overall,” “much improved,” or “healthy” O-Line, but have these phrases become so ubiquitous that we are not truly understanding exactly what they mean? How much attention should we be giving poor offenses that have made upgrades to their offensive line?
Let’s take a look at three teams who had sub-par finishes in 2019 but who may be hiding fantasy gems in 2020 due to improvements to their offensive lines.
Per Pro Football Focus’ (PFF) grades, Most Improved Offensive Lines in the NFL Offseason, and our own Tracking the NFL’s Offensive Line Continuity by Ian Hartitz.
The Cleveland Browns
2019 was supposed to be a big year for the Cleveland Browns. With pieces like Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, Nick Chubb, and Kareem Hunt, QB Baker Mayfield was expected to break out in his sophomore campaign after a promising rookie season.
Head coach Freddie Kitchens' “air raid” style offense promised fantasy production while PFF had the offensive line ranked second best in the league heading into the 2019 season.
In case you missed it, that didn’t happen. Mayfield finished as the QB19, throwing just one more touchdown than he did interceptions. The offense was in the bottom 10 in points, total yards, total offense, first downs, and passing yards, just to name a few. The O-Line who had been vaunted in the offseason finished 2019 as 23rd worst in the league.
A majority of the blame can be attributed to poor O-Line performances, but also to poor offseason moves by the Browns management (surprise, surprise) and injury. The Browns, for once, made the right call and put the offensive line as a priority to rebuild heading into 2020.
Two of the three returning starters, Bitonio and Tretter, are among PFF’s top rated offensive linemen who could not overcome the rest of the line’s ineptitude. Bitonio is ranked 12th out of 83 at the guard position and Tretter is 10th at center. Guard Wyatt Teller brings much needed pass-blocking chops, but needs to work on his run blocking.
Addressing the run block issues, the Browns picked up T Jack Conklin and drafted T Jedrick Wills. Conklin ranked 10th in PFF grades last year with outstanding numbers in both run and pass blocking at 83.7 and 73.9 respectively. He made quite the impact in Tennessee as an instrumental piece to RB Derrick Henry’s monster production.
Wills, like most rookies in the NFL, will be a wild card but he is an athletic beast of a run blocking O-Lineman. He led his tackle class in big-time blocks, moves with explosive power, and is versatile in whichever scheme he needs to execute. It shouldn’t take him long to gel with the Browns’ veterans on the line.
Fantasy Implications: After 2019, the Browns needed to make some changes to give Mayfield better pass protection and provide better blocking for Chubb. I am sold on the run blocking improvement, making Chubb and Hunt even more enticing in 2020 than they were before. However, the line looks unbalanced for pass protection. With the talent infused in the O-Line, it wouldn’t surprise me if they outperformed their pass-blocking grades, but I am wary of the pass-catching pieces in that offense to start the season. I would still take a shot on Beckham, but the risk that Mayfield will struggle still looms. New head coach Kevin Stefanski has a run first, run second, and think about running third type of mentality, so an O-Line infused with superb run blocking talent makes complete sense.
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New York Giants
Additions: T Andrew Thomas, T Matt Peart, G Shane Lemieux, T Cam Fleming
Losses: R Mike Remmers, C Jon Halapio, T Nate Solder
Continuity: G Will Hernandez, C Spencer Pulley, G Kevin Zeitler, G/T Nick Gates
Unlike the Browns, who can make an immediate improvement (at least in the run game), the Giants’ offensive line is a bit more nebulous. There are a lot of moving parts and questions surrounding who is going to start at what position.
Kevin Zeitler and Nick Gates are two stars returning for the 2020 season, and both have an “A” grade from PFF in both pass and run blocking heading into the year. Andrew Thomas, Matt Peart, and Shane Lemieux are all rookies and Cam Fleming is a free agent acquisition who saw his best seasons in 2016 and 2017. It is very clear from the draft and offseason moves that the Giants are serious about protecting their sophomore QB Daniel Jones, who was sacked 38 times last year.
Although the Giants added volume and raw talent, the chemistry is still muddy. With an abbreviated offseason, young blood, and only a few cemented starters, this O-Line looks set to have a rocky start.
With that being said, it may take just a few weeks for the line to gel. Unlike the Browns, who focused on Stefanski’s run-first scheme with their O-Line additions, the Giants' linemen are talented on both fronts. Once they get to know each other outside of Zoom calls and get some real football under their belts, expect big things from this Giants team.
Fantasy Implications: There are quite a few offensive weapons among the Giants that I am excited to target for the 2020 season. Barkley is obvious, but I also like down-field threat Darius Slayton, TE Evan Engram if he can stay healthy, and especially Jones as a late-round, high-upside quarterback. It will take some time for the offense to get their feet underneath them, but once it happens, watch out. If you take any of these players in your draft, be prepared to hold onto them until that time comes. If you miss out, keep your eyes on the waiver wire. Your leaguemates may likely rage drop due to the lack of immediate production.
New York Jets
The Jets kept only two of their starting offensive line with left and right tackles Alex Lewis and Chuma Edoga. Although they are returning, their jobs as starters are not guaranteed. GM Joe Douglas made the offensive-line priority number one after being hired as the general manager.
Here is why.
The Jets were last in total yards, rushing yards per attempt, scoring percentage, average yards per drive, and average points scored per drive. They were second to last in points for, first downs, rushing yards, rushing attempts, and rushing touchdowns. Plus, they were in the bottom 10 for passing attempts, passing yards, and passing touchdowns.
Honestly, they would have to actually try to be worse than they were last year.
Remember, too, that QB Sam Darnold missed four weeks due to illness, so not all of the offensive woes can be blamed on a poor offensive line. However, a majority of it certainly can be heaped right onto their shoulders. The two returning lineman, Lewis and Edoga, were arguably the better of the former line. Lewis ranked 60th out of 83 guards and Edoga was 79th out of 82 tackles, according to PFF. That should give you an idea of just how bad the offensive line was last year.
The 2020 O-Line will have a very similar feel to that of the Giants. There are a lot of moving pieces, young talent, and a shorter amount of time to become a cohesive unit.
If that chemistry can be created and cemented, we are going to see some very interesting offense from the Jets. If we look at the makeup of the new additions, we see a combination of athleticism and agility.
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Fantasy Implications: I personally believe that there is a lot to like about the Jets, but there is obvious risk at each skill position. Again, we should see the impact of a unified line later in the season, unless they manage the impossible and begin the season ready to go. With a healthy Darnold, I like WRs Jamison Crowder and Breshad Perriman, but I especially like returning TE Chris Herndon. Herndon and Darnold had immediate chemistry together in 2018. Herndon saw 56 targets with 39 receptions for 502 yards and four touchdowns that year, earning a spot in the Pro Bowl as a rookie tight end. A suspension and injury last year kept him off the field for all but one touch for seven yards. Darnold and Herndon will need to rekindle the bromance in 2020.
I am also intrigued by RB Le’Veon Bell with the addition of RB Frank Gore. Sure, Bell will lose touches to Adam Gase’s favorite running back, but Bell desperately needed help in the offense last year. Gore will take the work that Bell is not made to do, freeing him up to be more involved in the passing game. If you don’t believe me, refer back to the agile and athletic new additions to the offensive line. Whether or not the O-Line and the offensive scheme can come to fruition is another matter entirely, but the path is there for the skill positions to succeed. Plus, all of the Jets’ fantasy relevant players are going criminally late in drafts, giving you added value.